The Town of Widows

KABUL — The hills of this capital stand as monuments to men in battle, topped by crumbling forts and rusted tanks, ancient ramparts and gleaming tombs of kings. One is different but noAneesa, an elderly widow who has lived on the hill for eight years, is collecting dirt to make bricks and expand her home. “We feel more comfortable when we’re around other widows,” she says. less a testament to war. It is known as Tapaye Zanabad — the hill that women built.For the past decade, war widows have converged here and built by hand their mud hovels on a slope above a cemetery in an eastern neighborhood of the Afghan capital. They came at first because the land was free and they were poor. Police would fine or beat men for raising a settlement on government land, but the widows found that they could build if they were clever.

Hundreds of widows came, aid workers said, and they now number perhaps more than 1,000 on the hill and its surroundings. The first squatter homes have since morphed into a crowded community that has a private drinking water supply and spotty electricity. Most of the women have not been able to escape from wretched poverty, but they have preserved something far more unusual in a country dominated by men.“Most of the widows didn’t have anything when they came here,” said Aneesa, an elderly widow who has lived on the hill for eight years. “Once we got to know each other, we felt like we were sisters.”More than three decades of uninterrupted war in Afghanistan has mass-produced widows. The United Nations estimates that nearly half of the children in Kabul have lost a parent. The overall number of widows is not known, but it is thought to range from several hundred thousand to 2 million.

Hundreds of widows came, aid workers said, and they now number perhaps more than 1,000 on the hill and its surroundings. The first squatter homes have since morphed into a crowded community that has a private drinking water supply and spotty electricity. Most of the women have not been able to escape from wretched poverty, but they have preserved something far more unusual in a country dominated by men.

“Most of the widows didn’t have anything when they came here,” said Aneesa, an elderly widow who has lived on the hill for eight years. “Once we got to know each other, we felt like we were sisters.”

More than three decades of uninterrupted war in Afghanistan has mass-produced widows. The United Nations estimates that nearly half of the children in Kabul have lost a parent. The overall number of widows is not known, but it is thought to range from several hundred thousand to 2 million.

Sometimes the widows are painfully visible — Kabul is filled with burqa-clad beggars panhandling in traffic. More often, Afghan widows are shrouded from view, ordered by male relatives in extended families to stay at home.

For those without relatives to take them in, there are few options. It remains difficult for Afghan women from religiously conservative backgrounds to work, and neither the Afghan government nor its foreign donors have built a substantive safety net for women who must get by after the family breadwinner is gone.

Aneesa came to the hill after the Taliban government fell in 2001. Her husband, a soldier, had been killed years earlier during the civil war. In a culture with little to offer a penniless widow who had few relatives, she had been squatting in homes abandoned by those who fled the fighting. But she never felt comfortable, and as refugees returned to their homes during the early days of President Hamid Karzai’s administration, she decided she needed to move.

“Once you become a widow and live alone, people are strange toward you. They say a lot of bad things,” she said of her time before moving to Tapaye Zanabad. “Other women get worried you might try to marry their husbands. They talk behind your back. It’s Afghanistan; it’s full of negativity. We feel more comfortable when we’re around other widows.”

 article source